Elusive and mysterious: ‘The fox woman and doctor Shimamura’

In ‘The Fox Woman and Doctor Shimamura’, the German writer Christine Wunnicke reviews the life of a Japanese neurologist to reflect on the scope of science, memory and cultural gaps.

It is the end of the XIX century. Japanese neurologist Shimamura Shunichi embarks for Europe to establish contact with some of his colleagues such as Jean-Martin Charcot and Sigmund Freud. The theme that occupies the symposiums and that is discussed in the corridors of hospitals is the nervous system and its disorders. Shimamura has at his disposal the German language, which he learned in college, and the observations he recorded during a summer in Shimane Prefecture, where he witnessed a strange phenomenon with roots in Shinto: the possession of dozens of women by foxes. . In that journey, he ruled out most of the cases and took refuge in European diagnoses, such as hysteria. Him until he met Kiyo, a fisherman’s daughter, and saw how a fox “it entered with enthusiasm inside the left arm and struggled to reach almost to the elbow”.

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But Shimamura is an unreliable character; memory of him wavers. We meet him years after his European journey and his summer in Shimane. He lives in the country with his wife, his mother, his mother-in-law, and a maid. He suffers from tuberculosis. From the outset we are told that in his head they weave “complex and incandescent cobwebs”. He himself no longer knows whether he speaks Japanese or German. There seems to be a dissonance between the man he was in his youth and the man he is in adulthood. There seems to be a disconnect with some events in his past.

The novel The Fox Woman and Doctor Shimamura (Impairment), by the German writer Christine Wunnicke, has as its seed the lack of communication; everything else springs from it. Not only is she present inside Shimamura, she looks back at her in confusion. It is also in the difficulties that he had to make himself understood in Europe, as well as in the cultural and scientific gaps that separate Japan and Europe, and even in the daily interactions of the characters, which Wunnicke places in scenes marked by strangeness. At one point, for example, Shimamura listens to his maid sing a song called “Uyi y Kei”. He associates her with the epidemic of the fox, with the fisherman’s daughter, but her wife repeats that this song does not exist and has never existed. But he didn’t just listen to her? Could she have imagined it? Did the maid make it up? Who to believe?

Christine Wunicke

the prose of The Fox Woman and Doctor Shimamura it is direct and somewhat dry, it contains many medical terms. Some of its 200 pages do not read smoothly, perhaps due to a certain intentional opacity: the ellipses and contradictions make certain passages rare. On the other hand, its somewhat cool tone spills over into the plot: by the time the climax is reached, it feels curiously unnecessary, subject as it is to the ambivalence of Shimamura’s memory. It is a novel, rather, where readers do not climb a narrative slope towards an outcome. Rather, we travel an uncertain road surrounded by fog, where we do not know what to expect or where we are going to stop. We only know, perhaps, that we are immersed in an elusive and mysterious story, difficult to diagnose; as difficult, perhaps, as that of the women possessed by foxes in Shimane Prefecture.

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Elusive and mysterious: ‘The fox woman and doctor Shimamura’

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